Sunday, November 6, 2011

Autumn Gold -- © Dave Spier

Mention the word "conifer" and it's likely the concept of "evergreen" comes to mind. Most groups of conifers keep their needles through the winter. One big exception is the larch, or tamarack, the only common deciduous conifer. It turns gold in the fall (roughly the third week of October) and then drops its needles. During the winter, when the twigs are bare, take a closer look at the knobby texture of the year-old twigs.

Larch needles grow in dense, radial clusters supported by short, woody knobs on the sides of last year's twigs. One cluster can have 30 needles growing in a circular whorl. On this year's twigs, the soft needles grow singly.

Larches begin flowering at 15 years of age. The male flowers are tight clusters of stamens, while the female flowers are larger, scaly rosettes. Like other members of the Pine family (Pinaceae), they are wind pollinated. The female "larch roses" develop into barrel-shaped cones with overlapping scales and hollow tips. Immature seed cones are bright red. They grow upright on the ridged twigs, reach a length of a half inch or slightly more, then turn brown as they mature and may persist for several years. Inside the cone scales are brown seeds with firmly-attached, membranous (papery) wings affixed at one end.

October snow on larch (tamarack) branches before the needles fall - note all the cones. Natural Bridge, NY - © Dave Spier

Larches are related directly to pines and less directly to spruce, hemlock and Balsam Fir. All of these conifers produce so-called naked seeds. The Greek word for naked is gymnos, and yes, it's the original root of the word gymnasium. Combine this with sperma, the Greek word for seed or germ, and you get the botanical classification gymnosperm. (Other members of this group include yews, redwoods, cycads, cedars, cypress and the Ginkgo.) By contrast, angiosperms, or flowering plants, are evolutionarily more modern. Their seeds are enclosed by the ovary.

The native Eastern [American] Larch (Larix laricina) grows in bogs and boreal (northern coniferous) forests wherever it can get enough sunlight. It is one of the pioneer tree species but cannot grow in the shade of other trees. Overall, larch is now more abundant than it was before the logging of the late 1800's and early 1900's opened the forest canopy and allowed more light to reach the ground. (The Boreal Life Trail at Paul Smiths is a good place to see larches in their natural habitat.) Altitude is little hindrance to larches; they grow at 4620' on Haystack. At lower elevations, larches can reach heights of 60 to 80 feet, but still die out as mature forests reclaim the land and close the canopy, thereby preventing rejuvenation from seedlings.

European Larch (Larix decidua) is widely planted as an ornamental and for timber harvesting. Pure stands of tall larches are very likely this species.

Fortunately, larches are still commonly called Tamaracks (Algonquian). "Larch Lodge" just doesn't have the ring of "Tamarack Lodge."

Okay, I'm late getting around to this post, but other comments and corrections may be sent to

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